Hair Trigger

I’ve been seeing my therapist now for somewhere in the neighborhood of seven or eight months. This is a record for me, by far, and a little surprising because I feel so much “better” now and I’m still seeing her. (In contrast, every time I’ve needed to do physical therapy, I tend to stop when I stop hurting. Which really isn’t the way that’s supposed to work.)

I think the main reason I’m still going every week is that she keeps coming up with things that totally blow my mind. Case in point: I have a trigger.

I first learned about the concept of a trigger in feminist circles, usually around discussions of rape and assault, but more and more I’ve seen this expanded to other kinds of potentially triggering discussions. (As an aside–I surely didn’t know what “trigger warning” meant the first time I saw it, but somehow I was able to find out on my own without derailing a comments thread to get someone else to educate me. Wouldn’t it be nice if people similarly unenlightened about, say, trans* issues would try that approach?)

I always assumed trigger warnings were just for people who had experience with some kind of violent trauma.

I was wrong.

I don’t want to go into the specific details, but I’m discovering that arguments can be triggering for me. Actually, anything my brain reads as “confrontation” can be triggering–this points to why I have to steel myself up to walk over and ask a kid to stop doing something in the library, why I avoid making a phone call to point out a problem with a bill, why I’m having trouble doing my taxes right now, and why I have such a tough time walking away from a comments war.

I’ve actually been sitting on this post for months, because I feel a little silly about my trigger. (Okay, I think I have a couple–but this is a big one.) It doesn’t feel big enough to mention. I don’t feel like I survived an assault, or a combat zone, or anything I would call a legitimate trauma. But that definition is problematic, because it means I must apply that same standard of what constitutes “real” trauma to other people, right? And their traumas, their triggers, are no less “real” just because I say so, or because I didn’t experience them in the same way.

I know some people don’t see the value in trigger warnings, because life doesn’t come with them built in. But at least in online spaces where people care about each other, I think it’s incredibly comforting to have other people watching out for you, just as it’s comforting to be at the video store with a friend and have them know a particular movie would push all your buttons in the wrong way.

All of this is to say: if you know someone who has ever said something to you about not liking confrontation, please don’t assume that they’re weak, or passive, or timid. Please don’t push them to talk to that salesperson or honk back at that other driver. If they’re like me, there are other factors at play. And to us, even telling you about it might be too overwhelming a prospect.

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5 Responses to Hair Trigger

  1. Clarisse says:

    I can’t actually remember whether I first encountered the concept of triggers in feminist or BDSM discourse. But I have to say, in BDSM discourse it’s the most useful idea ever, because it reminds us that our sexual preferences and anxieties are ours alone, and that we’re responsible for understanding and controlling them. For example: If I’m in a dungeon watching someone get whipped, and I start freaking out over bruises or tears or what-have-you, then I recognize that as a trigger, and I recognize my responsibility to leave the room quietly and control myself rather than freaking out and disrupting the BDSM-safe-space. My departure is not a comment on them as people, or their activity in itself; that’s me taking responsibility for my trigger.

    And it simultaneously reminds us that other peoples’ sexual preferences and anxieties are theirs alone, and that we’re responsible for respecting those as far as we’re able. For example: most people accept that we don’t do heavy BDSM in public, because it could trigger onlookers who haven’t consented to be in a space where that’s happening. That doesn’t mean anything about the onlookers as people, or heavy BDSM in itself; it’s just us taking responsibility for a commonly-known trigger.

    Thinking about it this way is such a great tactic for respecting and honoring sexual diversity. I love it.

  2. Wendell says:

    Hey pandanose! Thank you so much for this post. A little switch got flicked as I was reading it–I may have a similar trigger. I was going to urge you not to call your trigger silly, but then I read that paragraph more slowly and better understood it! 🙂 I worked retail–albeit the more comfortable setting of an indie bookstore–and I found there are some conflicts I can totally handle when in a certain setting, in a certain role/mindset, performing certain tasks. And when I leave this more controlled situation similar things get to me.

    Hi Clarisse! You know, I’m getting tired of reading all these sensible ideas that come from BDSM practice. It’s like you want to treat others like adults!* 😉 Seriously, though–there are numerous things I’ve learned in the last year from BDSM-related blogs that I think would help make the vanilla realms more fun, respectful, and fulfilling.

    *A better term might be “with maturity” because I know plenty of mature young people, and immature people with more years under their belt.

  3. pandanose says:

    Hey Wendell. Context is such a slippery thing, isn’t it? I’m pondering whether the context of a confrontation changes how I handle it, but honestly I don’t think it does–which makes it all the more frustrating for me. Even in a totally safe, comfortable setting, I find my brain and body winding up with the same fight or flight reaction.

  4. Clarisse says:

    @Wendell — Seriously, though–there are numerous things I’ve learned in the last year from BDSM-related blogs that I think would help make the vanilla realms more fun, respectful, and fulfilling.

    Yeah, I’m a big proponent of the idea that BDSM ideas can reasonably be brought into the vanilla realm (in fact at one point I was asked to design a vanilla sexual communication workshop based on BDSM ideas). I keep meaning to post about it, but right now I’m saving all my best post ideas in the hopes that a gig as a pro blogger goes through.

  5. Wendell says:

    pandanose, that does sound incredibly frustrating to say the least. It got me thinking more, and–this is speculation–but I may feel more of a trigger when a confrontation takes place in a more safe setting. Instead of feeling more safe to deal with it, it destabilizes that feeling of safety. More light bulbs–is my definition of safety misplaced/not doing what it should be doing for me? (I read my original comment, and it’s interesting to see how this thought process has evolved–controlled still holds, but this might mean more controlled settings where some conflict is expected. Weird/interesting.)

    Clarisse, yes! I think it can be done. Though it is tough to put into words what seems to be so experiential. (Then I remind myself that’s why y’all blog about it!) There’s also how a lot of BDSM ideas seem to fly in the face of sex as commodity which seems to bring resistance to this. The workshop idea sounds great! Though I’m itching to read such a post, I’ll root for a pro blogging gig for you and look forward to one then!

    (This post may be fragmentary due to recent consumption of too much cake.)

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